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From Chow Yun Fat's Ko Chun to Andy Lau's Michael Chan to Chow Yun
Fat's more recent Ken Shek, three generations of gambling legends unite
in the third instalment of Wong Jing's 'From Vegas to Macau' franchise;
and how perfectly apt really, since it was from the prolific mind of
Wong Jing that these iconic characters of Hong Kong cinema were hatched
and etched into the public consciousness. Yet, as befitting as it may
be for him to be at the helm of this reunion party, it is also
ironically the reason why we are quite so utterly disappointed at this
lazily scripted, messily directed piece of overblown, over-the-top
nonsense which Wong Jing is passing off as a fun Lunar New Year caper.
Not that the previous two chapters, which saw Chow Yun-Fat portray Ken as a playful and even zany riff on his 1980s 'God of Gamblers' character, were classics; yet imperfect and at least mildly shambling as they were, 'From Vegas to Macau' and 'From Vegas to Macau 2' were a boisterous mix of kinetic action and goofy humour buoyed by Chow's effortless screen charm. That charisma is sorely lacking in this bloated follow-up given how Ken is joined not only by Nick Cheung's former D.O.A. accountant Mark, but also his master Ko Chun's disciple Michael (Lau), Michael's no-nonsense partner Kitty (Li Yuchun), a new nemesis named J.C. (Jacky Cheung) and last but not least a female equivalent to his male robo-butler named Skinny that the latter unsurprisingly takes a romantic interest in.
Continuing on the downward trajectory set by its immediate predecessor from the original, the sorry excuse of a plot that picks up from the events of the former has the love-crazed J.C. plotting to exact revenge on Ken for leaving Molly (Carina Lau) in her current comatose state. So J.C. detonates a bomb in the form of a robot designed to look like Michael at Ken's daughter's wedding (Kimmy Tong), and sets Ken and Nick up to look like they stole the US$15 million they recovered from Molly's international criminal organisation D.O.A. in the last instalment. Thanks to Michael and Kitty, Ken and Nick manage to break out of a high-security prison in Hong Kong, where they seek refuge in Michael's home in Singapore before going to a fictional island named Paradise Island in Thailand to confront J.C.
To nitpick at Wong Jing's script for his story is perhaps missing the point; after all, Wong Jing makes no attempt to disguise that it exists merely as narrative glue to connect standalone gags to action-heavy set-pieces. Yet even more than the last sequel, this one presumes audience goodwill in overlooking the gaping holes and lapses of logic in its plotting.
Unfortunately, there is little quid pro quo in our willingness to suspend disbelief. Compared to the previous instalments, there are a grand total of three gags that work here the first which has Ken lead his fellow inmates on a sing-along of the classic 'Prison on Fire' song 'The Light of Friendship' (友誼之光) at the prison where no less than the song's Macanese singer and songwriter Maria Cordero is the warden; the second which has a traumatised Ken regard himself as Zhang Wuji and his friends as other 'Jin Yong' characters after watching a classic adaptation of 'The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber'; and the last which sees Michael and Kitty play a game of mahjong with Yuen Qiu and Lo Hoi Pang to the tune of Sam Hui's classic 'The Mahjong Heroes' (or '打雀英雄傳').
As much as we love to see Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau and Nick Cheung clowning around with each other, the rest of the gags are tired, forced and uninspired, so much so that the middle act set in Michael's house passes by like a slog. Only the surprise appearance by Law Kar-Ying as an ammo expert by the name of 'Only Yu' (you either get the joke or you don't) enlivens the proceedings, though after that initial tongue-in-cheek name-play, Wong Jing can't even seem to follow through with anything amusing.
Seemingly aware of his audience's tedium, co-director Andrew Lau over-compensates in the last act with an excess of gunfire, pyrotechnics and CGI. Instead of actual locations, Lau has opted to build a number of grand sets to make up J.C's elaborate underground lair, most of which he then proceeds to blow up in slo-mo theatrical fashion after equally dramatic shoot-outs. Still, the action hardly excites, and is often over in a blur. The only two sequences which leave an impression but for the wrong reasons are a completely gratuitous one where Lau unleashes his 'Michael Bay' ambitions by letting Robot Stupid and Robot Skinny take on four evil robots in 'Transformers' fashion before Nick Cheung turns into 'Iron Man' to finish them off, and a totally cringe-worthy showdown between Ken and J.C. in the latter's (literally) highly charged laboratory where Jacky Cheung gets to show off his best 'Harry Potter' wand-waving impersonation before Carina Lau miraculously emerges from her coma to end everything off on yet another melodramatic note.
Despite the high-profile additions of Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, 'From Vegas to Macau 3' is easily the weakest entry of the series, no thanks to a shambolic plot, imbecilic gags, and incoherent action. What fun we had watching Chow Yun-Fat reprise his role as Ko Chun and his hyperactive doppelganger Ken is sorely watered down here, as Wong Jing spreads his time amongst the other key players and even plays down his role. Instead of honouring the legacy of his past screen creations, Wong Jing does them an absolute disservice and even disgrace by bringing them together without meaning or motivation. There is only so much nostalgia can get you, and it is too easy to recognise all that star-power as bluff.
With a movie like 'The Monkey King', the only way you could go with a
sequel is up, so it really isn't that surprising that 'The Monkey King
2' is a few notches better than its predecessor. Yet the two years
since the release of that dull and expensive CGI eyesore sees its
helmer Soi Cheang find poise, imagination and inspiration to deliver a
much more assured, entertaining, and engaging cinematic rendition of
the legendary 'Journey to the West' story, bolstered in no small
measure by an irrepressibly lively turn by Aaron Kwok replacing the
original's Donnie Yen as the titular Sun Wukong and excellent CGI by
no less than the folks behind 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit'.
Now that his origins are out of the way, this second chapter set 500 years after he was imprisoned by the Goddess of Mercy sees the young and ingenuous Tang Priest Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng) free Wukong from under the clutches of the Five Elements Mountain after being pursued by a white tiger. Unbeknowst to Wukong, their encounter has in fact been predestined by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) herself, who has given Wukong the quest of protecting Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve some sacred scriptures. Unbeknownst to Wukong, two other characters have been given similar assignments one, the half-man half-pig Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang); and two, the Sand Demon Sha Wujing (Him Law) thus completing the quadfecta of characters most commonly associated with the classic story.
Opting wisely not to cover too much ground, a newly appointed quartet of screenwriters (including Ran Ping and Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi) instead pick a famous segment from Wu Cheng'en's classical novel to form the backbone for this film, that of Wukong defeating the White Boned Demon (or 白骨精). The latter has been terrorising the wealthy Silk Road Kingdom of Yun for years, but her latest target is Xuanzang, whose flesh she believes will help her gain immortality. Those familiar with the source novel will remember the famous 'three strikes' between Wukong and the White Boned Demon - first as a village girl, second as an elderly woman and third as an elderly man but rather than a literal adaptation, the writers have re-interpreted the text more broadly as a three-round fight between the Demon and Wukong, with the last reserved for an epic CGI-heavy battle that has the Demon transforming into a towering half-bodied skeleton.
Oh yes, that last sequence alone is probably the most breathtaking that we've seen in any Chinese film thus far, a combination of good old Hong Kong action-on-wirework and modern-day CGI to re-define the fantasy epic genre. In fact, Cheang seems to have adopted the template set by his Hollywood counterparts for this sequel, constructing his film as a compendium of thrilling action sequences with enough story, humour and character development to serve as narrative glue in between.
Replacing Yen as action director is none other than Sammo Hung, and the latter's penchant for showy, flamboyant moves over the former's more grounded style proves a surprisingly better fit for the genre. Seemingly relishing the opportunity to be disencumbered from the forces of gravity, Hung hardly keeps his characters feet on the ground, preferring instead to send them soaring up into the heights of heaven or circling in the air while battling each other or one another. In particular, Kwok's months of martial arts training to prepare for this role has paid off handsomely, rewarding him with a deft physicality to match his naturally buoyant personality.
Cheang has also obviously benefited from the experience of the previous film in working with effects-heavy sequences, such that the visuals here boast a dynamism which its predecessor often lacked. Equally, Cheang is a lot more at ease juggling comedy, drama and action, striking the right balance between lightness and sobriety and the result is a film that knows when to take itself seriously and when to just have fun. The humour is wacky and well-timed, not only from Wukong's cheekiness but also from Bajie's willingness to poke fun at his pigsy look; while the drama emphasises Wukong and Xuanzang's conflicting principles, the former who sees no need to show mercy to those who do evil and the latter who is a firm believer of mercy regardless.
As much as we hate to admit it, Kwok is a much better 'Monkey King' than Yen not only is he much more spirited than Yen ever was, Kwok is also a much more expressive actor, and even under layers of heavy makeup, one feels keenly his sense of playfulness, frustration, indignation, anger, and loyalty to Xuanzang. On the other hand, Gong Li is a much better villain than Kwok was as the Bull Demon King; like Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficient' or Charlize Theron in 'Snow White and the Huntsman', Gong Li exudes elegance and malice in equal measure, so much so that there is never any element of doubt why her two subjects and even the King of Yun Kingdom (Kris Phillips) tremble and quiver in her presence.
Even though it would have made sense for Cheang to step aside for another director to take his place after the embarrassing 2014 original, the choice to return Cheang to the helm is at the end a wise one, allowing this sequel to improve in every respect from story to character to action to drama and ultimately to CGI. No matter how opportunistic it may seem for this sequel to be released right smack at the beginning of the Lunar Year of the Monkey, 'The Monkey King 2' overcomes such cynicism by delivering crowd-pleasing four-quadrant entertainment in exuberant fashion. If it's fun and thrills you're looking for this New Year, it's fun and thrills you'll get.
Till this date, Stephen Chow's 'God of Cookery' remains the gold
standard in culinary-themed comedies, and to be sure, Chapman To's
'Let's Eat!' won't be changing that yardstick anytime soon;
notwithstanding, To's dish of familiar yet agreeable ingredients makes
for an amusing and heartwarming lesson on putting your heart into
everything that you do (or in this case, cook), so you don't have to
worry about sending this back to the kitchen at all.
Assuming multi-hyphenate duties here, To not only directs but also writes and stars as the head chef Dai Hung of the once-Michelin starred Ah Yong Café. Its titular owner (Lo Hoi Pang) old and showing signs of dementia, Dai Hung now runs the café with a loyal bunch of servers, including the nerdy bespectacled Brushie (FAMA's C-Kwan), the pudgy gentle-mannered Gayon (Tommy Kuan) and the coy ingénue Beancurd Flower (Daphne Low). A better cook than businessperson, Dai Hung's insistence on using only the freshest ingredients for his customers while keeping prices constant means that the restaurant hasn't turned in a decent profit in years and struggles in fact just to break even.
Before his memory totally fails him, Ah Yong decides to entrust his café to his eldest daughter Rosemary (Aimee Chan), who so happens to return to Malaysia after completing her Masters in hospitality management in Switzerland. Rosemary is a businesswoman at heart, and decides to change how the restaurant is run in order that it stays in the black. Besides making superficial improvements with technology (such as getting customers to make their own orders on iPads), Rosemary overhauls the menu to introduce new-fangled products like Korean fried chicken, fish and chips, and 'Bangkok Wolverine' (or 'tom yum goong' really) while settling for cheaper ingredients in order to lower costs.
Thus sets the basis for their loggerheads with each other, one the principled head chef who adamantly refuses to part with tradition and perfection and the other the savvy management head who is eager to innovate and do what it takes to improve the bottom line. When the deteriorating food quality is slammed by a famous food blogger by the name of Michelin, is it any wonder that Dai Hung and Rosemary will eventually put aside their differences in order to save the restaurant from oblivion? In fact, is it also any wonder that they will, in the process, fall in love with each other despite recovering from the bruises of their respective previous relationships?
Like we said, originality isn't the strong suit of his script (who shares screen writing credit with Lai Chaing Ming and Ang Siew Hoong), but To makes it work with a nice yin-yang chemistry between himself and Chan. As always, To nails the role of the comically self-effacing individual with his amiable easy-going charm, and he shares a pleasingly complementary rapport next to Chan playing the stern and largely humourless rival. It is a pity that To's writing is a little too thin on the characters, such that Dai Hung and Rosemary's relationship doesn't quite evolve during the course of the movie as much as we would have liked it to.
For that same reason, the climax that takes place at a cooking competition organised by a regional TV channel right here in Singapore feels somewhat anti-climactic, especially because Rosemary's redemption lies at the hands of a French chef and a local food critic who discloses during the judging process that she doesn't even like chicken to begin with. Even a little twist at the end that reveals the identity of Michelin is hardly any surprise, and the happily-ever-after ending for Dai Hung and Rosemary (were you expecting any different from a CNY movie?) feels more obligatory than deserved despite the former having just recently rejected the advances of a former flame (Fiona Sit).
Yet to begrudge To for these flaws seems parsimonious, for To remains delightfully good-natured company to be in the presence of for a good hour and a half. To's comedic sensibilities have not dulled even though he assumes multiple duties an early sequence where he and C Kwan are at a Korean fried chicken outlet dissing the 'chicken from the stars' is classically To, and another where and he and Rosemary are at dinner with her father and younger sister sees the former deliver a hilarious monologue which is spot-on in its analogy of how politicians speak. Not all the jokes hit the mark though in particular, a sequence where Singapore's own Henry Thia is accused of being Michelin is too belaboured to inspire any laughs; and the same can be said of the token few lines given to Mark Lee who guest stars as the creator of the gastronomic competition.
It needs to be said too that a significant portion of the humour is lost in the Mandarin-dubbed version that is screened in Singapore cinemas, such that To, Chan and C Kwan are heard completely in Mandarin throughout the entire film. That is of course no fault of To's, who has put his heart into creating an uneven but nonetheless well- intentioned film that emphasises the importance of finding true meaning in the pursuit of innovation or the upkeep of tradition. This is no classic surely, but there are good laughs and great company to be had with 'Let's Eat!', which is more than enough for a pleasing Lunar New Year offering.
'Long Long Time Ago' is our very own Jack Neo's ode to a bygone era
from half a century ago, so it is no coincidence that this tale of a
family who lives through Singapore's formative years of independence
begins on the very day that we were kicked out of Malaysia.
It is on that day that a very pregnant Zhao Di (Aileen Tan) is driven out of her husband's home by his first wife, and moves back with her three daughters to stay with her father (Wang Lei), her second brother Ah Kun (Mark Lee) and his family, and third brother Ah Xi (Benjamin Tan).
The analogy is straightforward like Singapore, Zhao Di finds the burden of her own survival thrust onto her on 9 August 1965, and it is hardly any surprise that her subsequent display of tenacity and indomitable spirit as she perseveres to provide for her immediate and extended family are pretty much the same qualities that have been celebrated as the fundamental elements of our nation's success.
As narrated by Zhao Di's oldest daughter Su-ting, theirs is a story of the trials and tribulations of the family through the early years of Singapore's independence, with this first part of a duology (yes, this is like 'Ah Boys to Men' and 'The Lion Men' a story split in halves) spanning a four-year period.
Along the way, Neo highlights several iconic moments in our history, including the first Identity Card (IC) registration in 1966, the first National Service (NS) call-up in 1967, the first elections since independence in 1968, the race riots of 1969, and last but not least the big floods in the same year over Hari Raya Puasa.
Each of these junctures is intended as a turning point for the population at large as well as for our characters, but as well- intentioned as these signposts of our history are meant to be, Neo (who shares screen writing credit with Link Sng and Ivan Ho) struggles to weave them into the individual and collective fates of the latter.
Indeed, Ah Kun's cynicism about Singapore's ability to survive without a hinterland as he stands in line during the 1966 nationwide IC registration exercise seems to vanish as soon as he reaches the head of the queue; ditto for the concomitant apprehension expressed by his Malay neighbour Osman's (Suhaimi Yusof) wife about staying in a Chinese-majority country vis-à-vis migrating to live with a majority up north. On the other hand, there is hardly any attention paid to how Ah Xi feels as the first batch of male citizens called to perform their national duty, even as he dutifully reports to for enlistment.
In particular, Neo's attempt to make the 1969 race riots personally relevant for his characters feels especially awkward and unwieldy not only is it puzzling why Ah Kun, who had never before expressed any racially discriminatory sentiments, would suddenly spread mistruths and disinformation about the Malays attacking the Chinese, Neo's ultimate point about how fragile our racial cohesion is and how important inter-racial friendships are to keeping the peace and harmony comes off sounding didactic.
It is only right at the end does Neo finally manage to translate a historical milestone into something momentous for his characters, as Neo recreates with some generous help from CGI the torrential downpour on 10 December 1965 that led to the worst floods in Singapore in over three decades. In that event, Neo captures the fear, anxiety and helplessness of those living in the 'kampungs' through Zhao Di and her family, as they find their house gradually inundated by the rising waters and paralysed by the dilemma whether to wait for help or make their own way to higher ground.
That finale is as dramatic and emotionally gripping a finale as it gets, but it also underscores just how indifferent the rest of the 'checkpoints' in history have been to his central narrative. Therein lies the crux, or should we say crutch, of Neo's film by trying to balance the significant events in Singapore's history with the ups and downs of a family living through that era, it ends up being too episodic and scattershot to truly resonate.
In effect, it is when Neo allows his story to develop more organically that his film comes alive and a good case in point is the relationship between Zhao Di and a local gangster Ah Long (Ryan Lian) that evolves compellingly from intimidation to mutual gratitude. Ditto for the tension brewing between Zhao Di and Ah Kun in the last act, brought about by the latter's resentment of his sister's modest success that is reflected in how he demands to have a share of her relative wealth.
It is no secret that Neo is a big fan of nostalgia, and 'Long Long Time Ago' is probably his boldest attempt yet to translate his own personal experience into a compelling portrait of history. His enthusiasm and attention to detail is right up there on the screen not just in the visually accurate representations of the 'kampungs' and streets of pre-HDB Singapore supplemented with painstakingly sourced archival footage, but also in how he captures the heartbeat of 'kampung life' through its norms and values .
That his depiction of Singapore in its early years will resonate with those who have lived through the era is an understatement, but beyond that familiarity, there is little else that does not the boorish Ah Kun and his manipulative ways, and maybe ever just so slightly Zhao Di and her quiet resolve. Perhaps the best praise for this middling blend of history and fiction is that it is much, much better than last year's '1965', but 'Long Long Time Ago' still has a long, long way to go to become that definitive tribute to our past.
'The Tag-Along' takes a well-known urban legend in Taiwan and turns it
into a bone-chilling mystery built around themes of loss, regret and
familial love. Depending on your knowledge of Taiwanese folklore, you
may or may not have heard of the 'little girl in red', who was
infamously captured by a group of climbers on home video making their
way along a mountain trail. That video was broadcast on television way
back in 1988, and since then, others have reported similar sightings of
a little girl in a red dress just before they had met with some form of
calamity. Legend has it that the girl is a mountain demon known as
'mo-sien' (or 魔神仔 in Chinese), which preys on fear and guilt and is
particularly drawn to children and the elderly.
So it is that the first to disappear in the film is an elderly woman who happens to be good friends with our lead male protagonist's grandma (Liu Yinshang), a curmudgeonly lady confronted with the same fate one typical morning after making breakfast for her grandson Wei (River Huang). It will be a couple of days before Wei realises that she has gone missing despite being his caretaker from young, Wei's busy work schedule as a real estate agent have kept the two apart in recent times, leaving his grandmother in constant lament about how little he sleeps every night and how little time he spends at home with her. Their estrangement is also in part due to Wei's relationship with his girlfriend Yi-chun (Hsu Wei Ning), who harbours no plans to get married, settle down or have kids even after five years, much to Wei's grandmother's dismay.
As you can expect, there is a lesson here on taking the ones who love us for granted and as we learn through a series of flashbacks, Wei had made a promise to his grandmother when he was a kid that he would have dinner with her every night, even scribbling it on the underside of their dinner table. But it isn't just Wei who has a lesson to be learnt; midway through the film, Wei's grandmother is found walking lost and disoriented along a stretch of highway, right after Wei himself vanishes. Just as Wei had been taking his grandmother for granted, so has Yi-chun been doing likewise of Wei, and the second half of the film is as much about Yi-chun digging deeper into the legend of the 'mo-sien' as it is about her learning the depths of Wei's love for her.
If there is one thing that Jian Shi-geng's screenplay gets right, it is in establishing the relationships between Wei and his grandmother as well as between Wei and Yi-chun with careful attention and detail. Not only do we feel for Wei mourning the loss of his grandmother, we empathise with Yi-chun coping with the sudden departure of Wei, and within these two relationships, Jian makes keenly felt the regret we often face when the people who love us but whom we take for granted are abruptly taken away from us. The latter allows the climax set deep in a patch of dense forest to be both scary yet heartfelt, as Yi-chun resolves to save Wei from the clutches of the mountain demon that assumes the form of the 'little red girl'.
On his part, Cheng Wei-hao, who makes his feature filmmaking debut here, largely succeeds in sustaining a tense and uneasy atmosphere throughout the film. There are a couple of nicely earned 'jump' scares here, but what lingers is the sense of dread that he builds with the creaking of a door, the rustle of the wind and the voice of a little girl. Cheng loves to play with his audience's sense of focus, and an oft-used but nonetheless effective technique is how he teases us with something that we should be seeing on the periphery of the frame just before it jumps in our face. Just as well, Cheng hits the emotional beats of Jian's script nicely in particular, an early sequence that shows Wei's grandmother trying to wake Wei up for work when his alarm rings and then preparing his breakfast and lunch box for him pays off subsequently in unexpectedly emotional ways.
No wonder then that 'The Tag-Along' has gone on to become the most successful horror movie in Taiwan in a decade like the best of its genre, it isn't just a scattershot collection of scares but rather a poignant lesson on human nature that tugs on your heartstrings as much as it rattles your nerves. To be fair, it does owe its audience a couple of loose ends, and the CGI-heavy climax does border on overkill, but on the whole, Cheng's maiden entry to the horror genre is a spooky atmospheric affair that bears a foreboding omnipresence. At no point do you ever feel that its thrills are cheap or convenient, nor does it lose its emotional hook along the way, so if you're looking for a good scare, you'll find yourself in good company if you follow the little girl in red.
With the conclusion of lucrative franchises such as Twilight, The
Hunger Games and the impending end to Divergent, Sony has finally
jumped onto the YA adaptations bandwagon by releasing The 5th Wave into
theaters this week without an advance critics screening.
You might think this is a bad omen. After all, bad or good marketing vibes are still considered as marketing. Surprise.. Surprise.. even though The 5th Wave is not at the same level of the much-acclaimed Hunger Games, it remains for much of the running time a captivating and thrilling watch.
Based on a trilogy of books by American author Rick Yancey, the protagonist of the movie is Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenager living in Ohio whose ordinary life is altered after a mysterious alien invasion starts killing every humans on earth. The first wave involved a deadly EMP wave, the second involved massive tsunamis and the third, a deadly plague. Those that survived await the fourth and fifth wave. Aliens dubbed 'the others' took on human forms and start massacring every living human except children. When the army takes Cassie's younger brother Sam away to a refugee camp, Cassie must try all means to get back to Sam even if it means risking being shot by 'the others' and flying drones.
Let's face it whether it's on the small screen or the silver screen; it is always aliens or zombies roaming around in a deserted post- apocalypse world. The 5th Wave very much toys and revolves with the same idea and element. In short, mankind is basically doomed. Fortunately, director J. Blakeson knows how to package and tell a familiar story in an entertaining way and as an added bonus, he has a competent actress in the form of Chloe "Hit Girl" Grace Moretz onboard.
With the tragic loss of her parents, Chloe Grace Moretz is equally vulnerable and tough as Cassie. The opening sequence is so intense that it effortlessly sets the tone of the movie. No doubt, Chloe is such a consummate performer, her acting so flawless that you will almost forgive her stint in the crappy romantic weepie If I Stay. Just like Katniss can't do without Peeta and Gale, Cassie has the help of Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a boy who lived on a farm and her high school crush, Ben Parish (Nick Robinson from Jurassic World) to assist her in fighting her way to Sam. The 5th Wave has a lot in common with The Hunger Games. The main hero is female, caught between two guys and is always ready to step up to protect her younger sibling. Different universe, same character.
Of course, The 5th Wave won't win any awards for originality and I'm definitely not saying Yancey is plagiarizing somebody else's work. It is simply a tough act to balance formula and creativity nowadays. In between all the survivalism and action, there are some contrived romantic scenes between Cassie and Evan; but you have to bear in mind this is ultimately based on a teen-centric material. Veterans Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Maria Bello (A History of Violence) appear as shady military personnel. As to what these two are up to, the less you know, the better.
Despite familiar characterizations, The 5th Wave is a glossy, polished product that won't actually stand out in the overcrowded dystopian fantasy genre but warrant for a satisfying weekday viewing. Satisfying meaning the performance and pacing is great with one obvious gripe, you have to pray for two more sequels to know the outcome of Cassie's fate (and who she chooses in the end if you are the nosy sort).
'Port of Call' belongs to that rare breed of Hong Kong film that
strives to be social commentary. Indeed, that shouldn't come as
something surprising for those who have seen writer/ director Philip
Yung's previous two works, 'Glamourous Youth' and 'May We Chat'. Here,
Yung dramatically raises the stakes by basing his story on a gruesome,
real-life murder case which shocked the nation back in 2008, so like
its real-life inspiration, 'Port' revolves around the murder of a young
girl that draws three distinct individuals together.
On the first hand is 16-year-old Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li), who moves to Hong Kong in 2009 to live with her mother, stepfather and older biological sister. Over the course of a fractured narrative divided into three chapters, we will come to learn of Jiamei's ambitions to be a model that led to her auditioning for a dodgy talent company which uses her not as a photo-model but as talent scout, and how that eventually leads her to become a 'paid escort' so she doesn't have to ask her mother for money for material stuff she wants to buy. In particular, her life of prostitution leads her to fall in love with a bookish but nonetheless handsome-looking twenty- something who promptly throws her under the bus when he is confronted by his girlfriend, leaving her emotionally devastated and emptier than ever before.
The next character we are asked to pay attention to is Ting Tsz- chung (stage actor Michael Ning in his bigscreen debut), a stocky short- fused meat deliveryman who also happens to be a triad member. Very early on, the tenement house where Ting lives is the site of a grisly murder where the victim was dismembered and subsequently disposed of in various locations all over town, and Ting turns himself in shortly after to confess his role in killing Jiamei after a drug-addled night of paid sex where Jiamei asks Ting to murder her. The whodunit isn't what Yung is after here; rather, the second chapter entitled 'A Lonely Person' in particular tells of how Ting was unceremoniously dumped not long before he meets Jiamei by a girl whom he had a sweet and soft spot for.
Finally, there is Chong-sir (Aaron Kwok), a Regional Crimes Bureau detective assigned to Jiamei's case with his partner Smoky (Patrick Tam). Like Kwok's recent 'detective' roles, this one comes with its own quirks not only is his physical appearance, complete with an unflattering crop of graying hair, rumpled clothes and ill-fitting glasses, slightly disorientating to say the least, Chong-sir loves to take his own picture using a Polaroid camera at murder scenes and the homes of other people he interviews as part of the investigation. As much as Jiamei's is an open-and-shut case, Chong- sir is intrigued by just how a young girl like Jiamei would end up in such a predicament, that curiosity driven in part by his own role as a father.
Like we said earlier, Yung chooses to tell his tale by moving back and forth in time, and that choice of narrative structure does take some time to get used to, to say the very least. As its title suggests, the first chapter 'Seeking Mei' is probably the most disjointed, comprised of scenes that do not intuitively gel with each other; the middle chapter gets slightly more coherent, in part because it is also where the past and present timelines meet and things happen in a more linear fashion. But altogether, the film demands a fair bit of patience and focus on the part of its viewer to keep seemingly disparate events in mind with the promise that it will all start to make sense towards the end.
Amidst the somewhat uneven and inconsistent pacing however is an absolutely consistent sense of ennui, sadness and even anguish. Jiamei, Ting and Chong-sir are all lonely individuals in their own way one who finds her hopes of companionship dashed by a 'bastard', one who finds his feelings unreciprocated, and one who has become estranged from his wife (now ex-wife) and daughter over the years because of his work. The world they inhabit is similarly bleak, captured by cinematographer Christopher Doyle in all its harsh beauty whether the gritty alleys or cramped working-class apartments where isolated souls are faced with their own misery.
Especially defined with acute poignancy is Jiamei's growing disillusion with life, meant undoubtedly as a symbol of a whole segment of youth who are searching for purpose and fulfilment in their lives but who come out empty. That we feel so deeply for Jiamei is also credit to newcomer Jessie Li's heartfelt performance, conveying her character's fragility, melancholy, desolation and eventual despair as a result of her displaced upbringing as well as her displacement from society. Li is matched by an equally gripping performance by Ning, who brings pathos to his loner character so that we feel for Ting than regard him as a psychopath.
That's not to say that the film is perfect; that it most certainly isn't, and for one, it isn't hard to imagine a much more powerful film if the storytelling were more focused and the characters more well-defined. Yet there is something hypnotic and mesmerising about it, about the way it portrays the state of disfranchised youth in society, about how it gives voice to their frustrations, anxieties and hopelessness, and most of all about how relevant it is. It is for these reasons that 'Port of Call' stays with you long after the credits are over, provoking you to think about the Jiameis and Tings in our midst and what we can do to avoid the tragedy that brought this film to being in the first place. It may not be the best Hong Kong film you'll see this year (notwithstanding its official submission by the territory to the Oscars), but it is probably one of the most significant.
So slightly more than a decade after 'The Grudge', Hollywood has
decided to take its own original idea to Japan rather than the other
way round for a horror movie, though we hardly blame you for feeling
sceptical about the excursion. For one, instead of casting a Japanese
in the leading role, it resorts to convention to bring an American
woman all the way to Tokyo and sets her up with yet another American
who just happens to be in the area. For two, it calculatedly weaves a
tale of fiction around the real-life Aokigahara Forest, a dense jungle
at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan notorious for being the
most popular site for committing suicide in Japan. And yet, despite
these obvious reservations, 'The Forest' is in fact a pretty decent
low-budget horror, one that incorporates J-horror tropes into a
surprisingly suspenseful story of psychological malaise.
Through a series of flashbacks occurring as the twenty-something year-old Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) journeys to the Land of the Rising Sun, we are told of how she has a twin sister named Jess working as a school teacher in Tokyo who has mysteriously disappeared into the titular Suicide Forest about five days ago. Convinced by her unspoken connection since young that Jess is still alive, Sara leaves her boyfriend in the States and goes alone in search of Jess that is, even though she is warned by one of Jess' former students that her sister may very well have become one of the 'yokai' (or 'angry spirits') roaming that part of the woods. Somewhat too fortuitously, Sara runs into a reporter named Aiden (Taylor Kinney) working for an Australian travel magazine who takes an interest in her predicament and offers to let her use his guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) to explore the forest in return for giving him permission to write about her.
As they always do, things take a turn for the worse after she steps off the beaten track not only does she start hearing voices all around, Sara becomes disillusioned after seeing a schoolgirl who claims to carry a message from Jess not to trust Aiden. Is Aiden whom he says he is? Is he hiding some secret from Sara? Did he know Jess and if so, was he in some way responsible for her disappearance or worse death? Sara plays with these doubts in her mind even as we are teased with these same uncertainties. According to Western horror, Aiden would probably have met Jess a few days before and be at the very least linked to her fate; but as any self-respecting J- horror fan will tell you, you'll do wiser than to trust an innocent- looking schoolgirl who claims to be helpful.
Not to spoil any surprises for those intending to find out the truth on their own, but let's just say that the script credited to Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca does a fairly competent job of keeping you guessing right up to the very end. Oh yes, there is also a nice backstory along the way about their tragic childhood that is the reason why Sara and Jess were raised by their grandmother instead of their parents, and the connection between the age-old adage that 'it is all in your head' and exorcising one's own personal demons is a nice touch. It is equally commendable that the writers do not try to imitate M. Night Shyamalan, opting instead for an ending that carries a nice twist but doesn't pull the rug from beneath their audiences' feet.
Against a finely balanced screenplay, commercials' director Jason Zada makes a fairly successful feature filmmaking debut that juggles a sustained atmosphere of dread and foreboding with jump-in-your- seat moments, the latter in particular noteworthy for being effective even as you anticipate that something is going to go 'boo' in your face. Despite initial fears to the contrary, Zada remains culturally sensitive to the origins of his setting, treating the subject of suicide, its victims and would-be victims with utmost dignity and empathy. Deserving of mention too is 'Game of Thrones'' Dormer, who pulls off a compelling double-act as Sara and Jess, identical twins whose differing personalities have been unknowingly shaped by their experience of that tragic event from their childhood.
To be sure, 'The Forest' won't be a classic anytime soon, but you could do and could go much worse with a film like this. What starts off as a collection of clichés whether the twin that goes in search of her missing sibling or the dreams that she has which are somehow meant to be omens or warnings of what had happened and trite jump scares turns out to be much more by the time the credits run in this effectively brief 94-minute movie, melding the fundamental elements of J-horror with a psychological thriller that will be more familiar to audiences on a diet of Western horror. Such an East-meets-West premise could go wrong in so many ways, so it is indeed more than faint praise that 'The Forest' doesn't get lost in itself.
You wouldn't normally expect to see a full-blown exorcism in a South
Korean movie, so consider us intrigued when we first heard of writer/
director Jang Jae-hyun's 'The Priests'. True enough, Jang's film is the
first of its kind to dabble in the 'occult', a genre typically
associated with Western cinema for both cultural and historical
reasons. Digging deep into Roman Catholic theology to deliver a largely
accurate depiction of the oft-misunderstood ritual, Jang delivers a
tense and frequently edge-of-your-seat gripping portrait of the eternal
fight between light and darkness, a theme which he also similarly
explored in his award-winning 2014 short '12th Assistant Deacon'.
As in that short, the key protagonists are a renegade priest Father Kim (Kim Yun-seok) and a priest-in-training Deacon Choi (Gang Dong- won), who team up to save a young girl Young-shin (Park So-dam) that begins to exhibit one of the twelve manifestations of evil tracked by the Rosicrucrianism after a hit-and-run accident. Young-shin was a member of Father Kim's congregation when he was a priest of a church in the countryside, and it is partly their history that compels him to take matters into his own hands when the other members of his flock disapprove of his intentions to conduct an exorcism for Young-shin for fear of spooking the public.
It is hardly the first time that Kim is playing the role of the rebellious, tough-talking veteran, and he does it here with aplomb. He expresses with keenness not only the toll that Father Kim's fight with the demon inside Young-shin has taken on him, but also the conviction of his character's faith in the power of God over evil that gives him the strength to press on. Yet the film belongs as much to Father Kim as it does to Deacon Choi, a fresh-eyed ingénue who is plucked out of theology school to assist Father Kim while acting as spy for the larger Catholic fraternity to keep an eye on their wayward brethren - and unlike Father Kim, his motivation is less to save a life than to save himself from a life of studying in the seminary.
Needless to say, Deacon Choi soon finds himself way out of his depth as he is confronted with the very definition of evil, but there is more to Choi than just his naivety; indeed, Choi remains haunted to this day by the guilt of a traumatic childhood accident where he failed to save his sister from being bitten to death by a ferocious dog. It is this frailty that the demon will exploit to taunt and scare him in the midst of the rite of exorcism, and Gang embodies his character's transformation from fear to temerity with wide-eyed wonder and tenacity. His character is intended as Father Kim's complement as well as a passing-of-the-baton from veteran to rookie, and Gang shares an engaging dynamic with Kim in their scenes together.
Rather than contrive to take his audiences through a protracted story of Father Kim's battle with the demon within Young-shin, Jang opts for a much simpler narrative that places its emphasis on authenticity. Pretty much most of the first half is set-up for an elaborate display of the ritual in the second half, which takes place over the course of one full-moon night in a dingy top-floor apartment located at the heart of the bustling Myeong-dong district. Nonetheless, the first hour remains a riveting watch, constructed with scenes to underscore the peril that Father Kim and Deacon Choi will soon find themselves in. The procedure itself in its full extended glory is also more than worth the wait, packed with moments of sheer terror as the duo attempt to draw the evil spirit to reveal its name while overcoming their own personal demons.
For being the first of its kind, Jang deserves even more credit for successfully demonstrating how to 'localise' a genre that has never been associated with K-cinema or K-horror for that matter. Despite being his feature filmmaking debut, Jang exhibits a strong grasp of mise-en-scene, especially with the contrast of light and dark in the film's visuals. Jang's choice to film his movie on location in busy neighbourhoods and districts in Seoul, Anyang and Daegu also gives it a strong sense of place, and a particularly nice touch in that regard is the depiction of a traditional Korean shamanistic ritual right before the rite of exorcism. Oh yes, 'The Priests' is terrifying all right, bolstered in part by its heightened sense of realism, and besides being a bold new entry into a subject matter yet unexplored in that context, it is a perfectly worthy addition to the genre in its own right.
Five years and more than a few false starts later, Donnie Yen reprises
his iconic role as the revered Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man. Despite an
epilogue in 'Ip Man 2' teasing the appearance of Bruce Lee in this
immediate sequel, those expecting the legendary movie star to make more
than a glorified cameo will undoubtedly be disappointed; whether
because of copyright reasons or otherwise, Danny Chan (who first made
good of his physical resemblance to the late Lee in the TV series 'The
Legend of Bruce Lee') only appears twice in the whole film once, at
the start to ask Ip Man to be his master and twice, in the middle to
teach Ip Man to dance cha-cha in exchange for some kung fu training.
Instead, 'Ip Man 3' finds the titular Master Ip rise up to protect the principal, staff and children (including his own younger son Ip Chun) of an elementary school from a ruthless property developer Frank (Mike Tyson), while preserving his own reputation under challenge from an aggressive fellow practitioner Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang). Besides the much touted mano-a-mano fight with Tyson, the former sees Master Ip cross paths with the cocky gangster Ma King Sang (Patrick Tam), an ex-disciple of Master Tin (veteran martial arts actor Bryan Leung Ka-yan) who has no qualms kidnapping children in order to force the principal's hand. The latter however is more Master Ip's antagonist by circumstance than by choice; in order to prove his name in an already crowded field of martial arts masters tacitly competing against each other for name, fame and disciples, Tin Chi touts his technique as the authentic Wing Chun and openly challenges Master Ip to a competition in order to emerge from the latter's long illustrious shadow.
There are at least four good to great fights here the first at the Western Union shipyard where King Sang and his gang hang out, the second between Master Ip and a Muay Thai kickboxer (played by Simon Kuke of Tony Jaa's stunt team) sent by Frankie to ambush the former, the third between Master Ip and Tyson's Frankie himself, and the last but not least between Master Ip and Tin Chi at the latter's school. Like its predecessors, the best fights here are essentially two- handers between Donnie Yen and a worthy martial arts actor, so it isn't surprising that out of the aforementioned four, it is the latter three that stand out. Of particular note, Yen's duel with Kuke has an added thrill of taking place within the very confined quarters of a lift before moving on to a narrow stairwell; while Yen and Tyson's one-on-one have the added urgency of time (i.e. within three minutes) and Yen's finale with Zhang the added novelty of poles and knives in addition to pure fists.
In Sammo Hung's place, it is the hugely respected Yuen Wo-ping who is taking over as action director here, and the latter opts for less showy set-pieces that lack the sheer adrenaline rush of those in the first two movies but nonetheless are note-worthy for being grounded in realism. Yes, there is no equivalent of the tabletop fight between Yen and Hung in 'Ip Man 2', which though thrilling to watch was also criticised for being too heavily reliant on wirework and a suspension of disbelief; rather, Yuen assembles a supporting cast with actual kung fu abilities and talent if not brute force (we're talking about you, Tyson) to spar with Yen and leaves the rest up to the performers' speed, agility, strength and skill. If there was the ambition of topping the earlier films, there is no hint of that here, and we suspect those who are just here for the action will probably come off a tad disappointed that there is no one standout moment of utter exhilaration that defines the entire movie.
Yet 'Ip Man 3' is all the better for not trying to better its own predecessors; instead, it finds its own rhythm by being a touching portrayal of marital love and devotion between Master Ip and his wife Cheung Wing Sing (Lynn Xiong). More than the earlier films, Wing Sing's supporting role is especially poignant here, as her character discovers from a persistent pain in her abdomen that she is in the late stages of cancer. A good part of the middle act of 'Ip Man 3' is composed of intimate scenes between Master Ip and Wing Sing as they struggle to come to terms with the latter's frailty and impending fate, and what emerges in these quieter moments is a touching portrait of Ip Man's profound love for his wife above all else, retreating into seclusion from the wider martial arts fraternity even as his reputation is on the line so as to be by her bedside day after day.
As always, it is Yen who anchors the film from start to finish with his nuanced portrayal of Master Ip. A passionate speech he makes to Kent Cheng's Sergeant 'Fatty' Po about not bowing to his corrupt Western superior would have sounded sanctimonious if not for Yen's expert under-playing; but more than his character's dignity or honour this time round, Yen depiction of Master Ip's equanimity amidst his grief at his wife's debilitating state is especially moving.
That is no small measure credit to its director Wilson Yip as well as its trio of writers (namely, producer Raymond Wong's son Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-li and Leung Lai-yin), who nicely balance the action- oriented setpieces with a solid and grounded character study built upon the personal real-life struggles of their titular character. Oh yes, it may not boast the most incredible fight scenes of the trilogy, but in spirit and in tone, it is a beautiful and fitting conclusion to quite possibly the most outstanding martial arts series of recent time.
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